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CSUN Professor Rides California's Seismic Waves to More Than $500,000 in National Science Foundation Funding PDF Print E-mail
Written by San Fernando Valley Sun   
Thursday, 14 June 2012 03:00
Dayanthie Weeraratne

NORTHRIDGE – California State University, Northridge marine seismologist and geological science professor Dayanthie Weeraratne's passion for geophysics radiates like an earthquake's P wave traveling deep into the Earth.

Weeraratne's passion recently led to a National Science Foundation CAREER grant with an intended total of more than $516,000. Her project, entitled, "CAREER: Geodynamic Study of Earth's Mantle Asthenosphere and Core Formation" will, among other things, address cutting edge questions about plate tectonics and the Earth's core formation, and includes the development of the Geological Experience for Minority Students (GEMS) educational program, designed to increase the number of underrepresented students within the discipline.

"Although plate tectonics was accepted in the 60s and 70s, we still don't know why plates move or the physical properties of the asthenosphere (the layer beneath the plates) that provides the lubrication for plate motion," said Weeraratne. "My research will use marine seismic tomography and geophysical fluid dynamics to investigate the physical properties of the asthenosphere and determine what allows plate motion."

Weeraratne's research also aims to understand how the Earth's iron core was formed.

"Early rocks and meteorites in our solar system were made up of a mixture of silicate rocks and iron metal, but the Earth, and most terrestrial planets, have iron cores that are completely separated from their rocky mantle interiors today," she said. "Understanding how metal plumes descended into Earth's interior and formed the iron core has important implications for the Earth's magnetic field, which protects us from solar wind and creates the beautiful northern lights. We may also find a link between the events of iron core formation and the delivery of volatiles to the Earth's upper asthenosphere to facilitate plate tectonics – a feature unique to Earth in our solar system."

As a professor, she said application of her work as a researcher within the classroom helps instill passion in her students.

"One of the most inspiring classes I've had was when I left class to be on a research cruise," Weeraratne said. "While I was there, I talked to students via satellite. They really got a feeling for how excited I was about what I do. If I had stayed in class and just told them about seismology for 16 weeks, they wouldn't have gotten as excited as they did watching me."

Learning about Weeraratne's fieldwork makes the career seem more attainable to students.

"When I tell students stories and explain geological concepts, I can put up pictures of myself and then they can relate to a real person – it's not an arbitrary old guy in a lab coat – they can see somebody they know, and they can visualize themselves doing it. It hits home," she said.

In the past two years at CSUN, Weeraratne has set sail on four research cruises, and has taken CSUN students with her each time.

"I always take students," said Weeraratne. "It's the reason to go … to inspire our future scientists. On a cruise, you learn everything firsthand. It's nice to see them get excited about discovering how the Earth works. Everyone says this, but when a student asks you a question, and through their own curiosity and exploration, discovers the answer … there's nothing like seeing that light bulb go off. That's what you live for as a teacher. Some day that light bulb will be a real discovery."

Weeraratne's passion for geological sciences erupted unexpectedly during a pleasure hike up Mount St. Helens. In 1980, a 5.1 magnitude earthquake had launched the largest landslide in recorded history and a volcanic eruption equal in power to 500 atom bombs.

"It's the only major volcano in the continental U.S., and to see the devastation… Miles of old growth forest; trees as big around as my office … and they were blown over like match sticks by the pyroclastic flow," said Weeraratne. "They were lying down and had been incinerated. All I could think was, 'Where does the energy for a volcano come from?' I wanted to know more about the interior of the earth."

Weeraratne earned her bachelor's and master's degrees at University of Oregon and her Ph.D. from Brown University, and she completed post-doctorate work at the Carnegie Institution of Washington's Department of Terrestrial Magnetism. Her ongoing research uses interdisciplinary techniques in surface wave tomography, shear wave splitting and geophysical fluid dynamics to study geological problems.

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Last Updated on Thursday, 14 June 2012 23:33